University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Growth Scores Matter

In The View from the OEP on April 10, 2018 at 11:00 am

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OEP wanted to share our OpEd that was published in today’s Democrat-Gazette.  We wrote it to highlight why we think a school’s growth score is critical to understanding how well a school is serving all students.  Although growth scores were supposed to be weighted more heavily in the ESSA index (on which the letter grades are calculated), in reality the schools with high growth received lower grades than schools with high achievement.

We created an interactive data visualization to help you see what we think is the most important measure of schools for parents, students, educators, and policymakers to understand.  You can also download the data behind the viz from our website. Check it out and let us know what you think!


School ratings miss opportunity

Posted: April 12, 2018 at 2:47 a.m.

Arkansas’ public schools are being assigned A-F letter grades, and we at the Office for Education Policy are always supportive of providing information on school improvement. But for a thorough understanding of how well our schools are doing, we must look beyond the school grades.

Letter grades are familiar to parents and students because teachers use them to communicate how well the student is performing in their class. Teachers can choose what counts most in their class; one teacher makes the final a huge part of the grade but doesn’t count homework for much, while another teacher counts every homework assignment and allows students who are doing well to skip the final altogether. Different approaches to grading send a signal about what is important.

Arkansas’ new school grading system was developed to send the signal that increasing students’ learning over time is more important than how many students at the school pass the annual test. We agree, but were disappointed to find that, in practice, schools with higher passing rates receive higher grades than those where students are growing more. Because the letter grade doesn’t reflect what we think is the real measure of school quality, we urge you to look beyond the grade.

The intention of the A-F school grades is to help parents and the public better understand how well a school is performing, but the current system still paints an incomplete picture and thus sends the wrong message about what matters. For years, since the No Child Left Behind legislation was signed in 2002, the measure of how well a school was performing was current achievement, measured by the percentage of the schools’ students who passed the state’s annual exams. Schools serving more advantaged students typically received “good” scores because a high percentage of their students passed, while schools serving a larger percentage of students who lived in poverty, participated in special education, or were learning English often were labeled “not good” because too few of their students were able to pass the test.

The clear connection between passage rates and student demographics suggests that point-in-time test scores were not a good measure of how well a school was educating students, but rather a reflection of the wealth of the community being served by the school. Critics (like us at OEP) suggested a better measure of school success would be based on student learning growth. Growth measures how much individual students at the school increased their scores from year to year. Using growth as a measure of school success levels the playing field because all students are evaluated by the extent to which they grow from their own starting point; thus, students facing socioeconomic barriers to achievement have the same opportunity for growth as their peers from advantaged backgrounds. All students can grow their understanding, and we should expect all schools to foster student growth, regardless of family income, first language, or learning needs.

It is true that Arkansas’ new grading system includes a category for student academic growth, alongside the category for current test passage rates. In fact, for elementary schools, growth counts as 50 percent of the grade, achievement counts for 35 percent, while “other” school quality indicators count 15 percent. Based on these numbers, it would seem that schools with high growth would get a better grade than schools with high passage rates, but it doesn’t work out that way.

In the current system, the overall school grades are influenced very little by student growth. For example, an elementary school with high growth and low current passage rates gets a “C,” while one with low growth but high passage rates gets a “B.” Even when a school is growing student learning better than 97 percent of the schools in the state (+2 standard deviations), if the school boasts only average passage rates, that school will earn a “B.” On the other hand, a school with average growth and very high passage rates will receive an “A.” Simply put, schools with high passage rates still earn better grades than schools with high growth.

The mismatch between what the letter grades were supposed to reward and what the grades actually reward is due to a mathematical problem of big differences in the variability of the measures for passage rate and for growth. Without wading too deep into the technical details, we can tell you that this issue won’t be difficult to fix, and we hope the Department of Education will adjust this for future school grades. In the meantime, however, we recommend you look past the overall grade and check your school’s growth score.

What is a really good growth score? It depends on the grade levels served by the school. Elementary schools with a growth score of 83 or higher (82 or higher for middle/ junior high, and high schools) are growing students’ understanding more than 75 percent of schools in the state.

If your school has a really good growth score, you should celebrate in a big way! Even though the overall letter grade may not reflect it, your school is doing what’s really important: helping all students learn.

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